One of my mother’s prized kitchen possessions was the chitarra her mother gave her when she got married, some 58 years ago. This rectangular wooden instrument, strung with thin metal wires, cuts sheets of pasta into long, square noodles that are perfect for saucing with rich meat ragù. Every few Sundays, my mom treated us to spaghetti alla chitarra (“guitar spaghetti”), a specialty of her native Abruzzo region, and it is still my favorite pasta dish, hands down.
A few years ago, when I was working on my book “The Glorious Pasta of Italy,” my mother gave me the chitarra. She hadn’t used it in a long while, and you could say it was out of tune; the wires were loose, and one of the screws to tighten them was bent. I set it in a cabinet, figuring it had cut its last batch of noodles. Eventually, curiosity got the better of me; I managed to tighten the wires with a wrench, and within the hour I had a pound of freshly cut chitarra pasta.
There are all sorts of fancy pasta extruders and motorized pasta-cutting attachments on the market these days. But there is something quietly satisfying about making pasta the unplugged way, with your hands and maybe a few simple tools to help you out.
Every region has its special handmade pasta shapes: delicate hand-cut egg noodles called tajarin from Piedmont; corzetti stampati (embossed coins) from Liguria; sauce-catching orecchiette (little ears) and cavatelli (little hollows) from Puglia. I don’t know of an official tally, but surely it is in the hundreds; I come across new (to me) shapes each time I return to Italy for research. Once obscure, regional pasta shapes increasingly are turning up in restaurants (not just Italian ones), in cookbooks and online. (Check out the Instagram accounts of @lucacappuccinodonofrio and @chefnk for some worthy pasta porn.)
Part of the allure, I believe, is the lore and history attached to specific shapes; the chitarra, for example, was devised in the 19th century by the makers of wood and wire mesh flour sifters as a way of simplifying the task of cutting noodles for Abruzzese housewives. Pasta technology may have surpassed the chitarra, but to be considered a serious cook in Abruzzo you better know how to play that guitar.
Specific tools — a ridged or carved wooden board or stamp to imprint patterns, or a cutter like my mother’s chitarra — were once difficult to find, but thanks to specialty shops and the Internet, that is no longer the case (here’s a list of resources), though the number of artisans who produce such tools by hand continues to dwindle. Even if you are not into collecting bespoke pasta utensils, you can almost always improvise using tools you already have in your kitchen (got a Microplane grater?) and your own ingenuity. After all, that is probably how most pasta shapes came about in the first place.
Here are three of my favorite pasta shapes to make by hand. They are easy to master, impressive to serve and delicious.
Spaghetti alla chitarra: I’m not the only one who loves these toothsome noodles. Once unfamiliar to anyone not from Abruzzo (including other Italians), spaghetti alla chitarra is now a customer favorite at the hipsterish Capitol Hill restaurant Rose’s Luxury. BJ Lieberman, chef de cuisine, likens it to “Italian ramen.” The restaurant serves the noodles in a completely nontraditional way, inspired more by Sicily than by Abruzzo: tossed with fried cauliflower, golden raisins and pine nuts. “They’re really hearty and homey; they feel traditional,” Lieberman says. “And they hold broth and sauce well.”
Rose’s Luxury makes the noodles the traditional way, with not one, but two chitarras, which it employs every couple of days to cut 20 kilos of pasta. If you’re not inclined to buy one yourself, a number of pasta machine manufacturers, such as Marcato Atlas, sell chitarra cutter attachments. Or you can go even more unplugged and roll up pasta sheets, jelly roll style, then hand-cut them into noodles. (See the recipe for detailed directions.)
Corzetti: These beautiful embossed pasta coins literally have royalty written all over them. For centuries, Liguria’s noble families had artisans custom-carve the two-piece stamps, which typically featured their crest on one side and a traditional Genoese or Ligurian symbol (such as a ship) on the other. Filippo Romagnoli is one of a few Italian artisans still hand-carving the two-piece stamps. He learned the craft from his grandfather, who in turn apprenticed with a Florentine wood-carving master. “We have always served a niche market,” says Romagnoli, who lives near Florence and sells his stamps online through Etsy. He says he is heartened by what he sees as a growing interest in corzetti, especially from U.S. customers.
Nancy Purves Pollard, owner of La Cuisine in Old Town Alexandria, says she has thought of carrying corzetti stamps but isn’t sure the interest is great enough. When she makes corzetti, she improvises, using a patterned rolling pin to create an impression on pasta dough and detailed Hammer Song cookie cutters to cut out whimsical shapes. Her favorite is the “rude nude,” a plump, reclining naked woman. “I float her in broth and serve it to guests,” Pollard says. “People love it.”
Cavatelli: Think of these as orecchiette’s more easygoing sibling. They are much easier to shape than the classic “ear-shaped” pasta. Unlike corzetti, cavatelli are a classic “poor man’s” pasta, made with just flour and water; no egg. The springy dough does not need to be stretched with a machine or a rolling pin. Instead, it is rolled by hand into ropes and then cut into pieces, much like gnocchi. The nuggets of dough are then rolled with two fingers along an embossed wooden board known as a cavarola board. That creates a depression on one side of the curled dough and a pretty impression on the other.
The good news: A ridged gnocchi board does the work just as well. Or, for a good hack, use a Microplane grater or a box grater to create some texture. You can also roll cavatelli on a plain surface; wood is best, as its slight roughness allows the dough to “grip” the surface and roll properly. Even if you are a pasta newbie, I assure you that you will soon be cranking out cavatelli like a nonna from Bari.
These three shapes exemplify everything I love about making fresh pasta; they combine artistry, elegance, history, ingenuity, practicality and regionality. They are steeped in tradition and yet perfectly at home at the 21st-century table, whether it’s Rose’s Luxury’s or yours.